It’s almost hard to believe what Jim Mora has been able to do with the UCLA Bruins in just two years. In the two seasons before Mora arrived, UCLA football won a total of 10 games. When he took over in 2012, the Bruins almost matched that total with nine wins. Last year, UCLA improved to 10-3.
What is more impressive is that last year’s effort was achieved with a very young team. The bulk of that team returns this year, making the Bruins look like the early favorite in the Pac-12 South.
Quarterback Brett Hundley is back after leading the Bruins in passing and rushing last year. While Hundley is an impressive runner who totaled 748 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground last year, he is an even stronger passer. He threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns with a completion percentage north of 67 percent.
Hundley isn’t quite as celebrated as Arizona State Sun Devils QB Taylor Kelly, but he compares favorably to Kelly in completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and QB rating. The difference? Kelly threw 115 more passes last year.
Hundley will have a decent group of receivers this season, though the Bruins will have to find a replacement for Shaquelle Evans. After Evans though, UCLA returns its next three leading receivers. Sophomore Thomas Duarte is also a strong candidate to emerge as a top receiver this year after a freshman campaign where he recorded 214 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
If you are looking for a question mark on this offense, it’s probably the running backs. The Bruins have some depth there, but there are no proven stars. Of course, with Hundley providing a significant rushing threat, they may not need a star running back. If someone does emerge though, he should find plenty of space to run behind UCLA’s strong offensive line.
As solid as the offense is, the defense provides a better illustration of how well the Bruins have recruited under Mora. In the front seven, the Bruins must find replacements for their three best pass rushers, LB Anthony Barr, DE Cassius Marsh and DE Keenah Graham, who combined for 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss last season.
And yet, the Bruins’ front might actually be better this season.
Barr will be tough to replace, but the defensive line should start three former five-star recruits: Eddie Vanderdoes, Ellis McCarthy and Owa Odighizuwa. None have put up exceptional numbers yet, but they will have their opportunity this season.
The Bruins also return five of their top seven linebackers from a year ago, so even the loss of Barr may not be too painful. One big reason for optimism is the presence of Myles Jack, who managed to win the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award for both defense and offense last year after pulling double-duty as a linebacker and a running back. And while Jack may continue to play both positions going forward, he apparently plans to focus more on defense.
Then there is the secondary. The Bruins had one of the best pass defenses in the Pac-12 last year, and they should be even better this season. They return virtually their entire secondary, including an outstanding pair of safeties in Anthony Jefferson and Randall Goforth, along with CB Ishmael Adams, who snagged four interceptions last year.
UCLA’s schedule could be perceived as either a blessing or a curse.
The bad news is that the Bruins drew a tough slate of cross-division games. UCLA plays the Stanford Cardinal every year, but they could have lucked out and avoided the Oregon Ducks. Instead, the two North division teams UCLA will not play this year are the Oregon State Beavers and the Washington State Cougars. The Bruins will also face a tough challenge early in the season when they take on the Texas Longhorns in Austin.
The good news is that the Bruins will play host to Oregon, Stanford and the USC Trojans. The friendly selection of home games helps, but as balanced as the Pac-12 South is, the Bruins are at a disadvantage playing both Stanford and Oregon. Arizona State and USC will both avoid the Ducks this year, and the Arizona Wildcats will avoid Oregon and Stanford.
The Bruins may be the best team in the division, but the schedule ensures a difficult battle if they want to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game in 2014.
Dan Kelley covers Big 12 football for RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @DKelley_CFB or “Like” him on Facebook.